Sportsflicks: Taxi Driver (Of The Bullpen Car)

The 1977 TV movie Murder At The World Series offers none of the excitement of the World Series, and barely any murder. A lot more Astros, though.
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It’s a familiar urge -- that Travis Bickle Feeling, a wish that someday a real rain will come and so violently on. Blessedly, the 99.8% of us who periodically fall prey to this feeling come to our senses, realizing that St. Louis Cardinals fans, for all their faults -- or our faults in not being able to appreciate their humble excellence -- are people, too. Happily, the remaining 0.2 percent don’t go ahead with their plans for heinous vengeance, but rather use the written word as wish fulfilment. Sometimes, a television network will be unwise enough to put it on television.

In 1977, ABC aired a TV movie which attempted to merge two 1970’s tropes, the disaster movie and the “cinema of loneliness”, into a baseball movie. The result, Murder At The World Series, does neither Martin Scorsese nor Irwin Allen any favors.

Director Andrew V. McLaglen’s body of work is mixed to say the least. The son of Academy Award-winning actor Victor McLaglen, Andrew V. is largely known for his not-especially-beloved late period John Wayne movies (the impressively punctuated McLintock!, Chisum) and not especially remembered even a little bit mid-period Roger Moore vehicles (The Wild Geese, North Sea Hijack). The movie closest to Murder At The World Series in McLaglen's oeuvre might be Mitchell, the 1975 Joe Don Baker vehicle which inspired what was arguably the greatest episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and certainly the one with the most references to Al Noga.

Sad to say, Murder At The World Series has neither running commentary from two sarcastic robots nor burglars who look like Minnesota Vikings linemen of the 1980’s. You can’t tell the players (or their wives) without a scorecard.  85 minutes into the film, I had almost but not quite figured out where Janet Leigh is in this, and what she had to do with the plot.  There is also a token “woman reporter” subplot, in which you think the female sportscaster is going to be a bigger hero than she actually gets to be, and another character whose cancer receives as much attention as that of the mother from The Room. Literally none of this matters, and by the end of the movie most viewers will feel as nihilistic as the anti-hero. All the stories we’ve been paying attention to dovetail into a muddled puddle of crap. People grumping over this World Series might know the feeling.


Bruce Boxleitner is Steven Cisco, a pitcher who tried out for the Astros, but just didn’t look good enough in those rainbow-gut uniforms to make the squad. He does, however, have a motorcycle and a cool van, which he uses to kidnap what he believes to be the wife of the pitcher who replaced him.  His only weapons are a few sticks of dynamite and the magic words “I need to get to my wife!” It’s enough.

The kidnap victim, Kathy, turns out to be of the Fawn Knutsen variety, a runaway from the prairie who’d rather sleep with rich people in the Sun Belt than toil in the wheat fields. You can tell by how fast Boxleitner is going that the van in which Kathy is trapped will (spoiler alert) explode.  This is the titular murder, though it’s more like I Can’t Get To My Bitchin’ Van In Time To Disarm It At The World Series than it is actual cold-blooded murder.

Perhaps if Murder At The World Series were not saddled with the iron fist of ABC’s Standards and Practices department, it could’ve had a better film -- say, one in which Kathy escapes, or at the very least someone actually murders somebody on purpose, or for a motive that goes beyond, for instance, that of the effectively inactive Edward Mujica. A subplot involving the Governor’s mistress -- again, not a very good movie! -- could’ve used the psycho as a macguffin had it devolved into murder as it should have; Boxleitner could’ve subdued the Governor in a thrilling climax, and perhaps we’d all be using “subdued the Governor” as a euphemism to this day. Instead we get something closer to Suicide By Cop At The World Series, without much in the way of stakes or incident or… anyway, it’s not much good.  

Rodeo legend and Western wear entrepreneur Larry Mahan plays a rodeo star (not too much of a stretch) who fools around with barely legal teens (which, please God, let that be a stretch). Murray Hamilton, the mayor from Jaws, plays a publicist, and looks and seems intoxicated throughout.  Hugh O’Brian, whom both my parents agree is handsome, plays the Governor. Cooper Huckabee and Michael Parks, both of whom also appear in Django Unchained, play two Astros relievers fighting for the closer position, in a subplot as exciting as a mid-July bullpen session. It all adds up to a marginally more violent version of Nashville in which everyone is dull and mostly incompetent and (forgive the redundancy) associated with the Astros.

Murder At The World Series was, however, the final film for Oscar-nominated actress Nancy Kelly. Any actress saddled with such lines as “Your hormones may dry out but your memories get juicier,” and further saddled with saying them to a young Lisa Hartman Black, could be forgiven for thinking retirement doesn’t sound so bad.  Lisa’s mother Jonni, a noted publicist, cameos as a TV news producer. Continuing with the “children of Hollywood legends” trend, Maggie Wellman (whose father William directed The Ox-Bow Incident) plays the doomed runaway Kathy, and while she is not ever seen onscreen, a young Jamie Lee Curtis was involved with her mother’s role in the film; the 18-year-old is credited as the dialogue coach.

The fictitious World Series matchup, with the Houston Astros facing the Oakland Athletics, was possibly exciting back in 1977, when America was in the throes of J.R. Richard Fever; it is now a not-so-fun AL West matchup.  Savvy viewers will know that the 1976-ish Houston Astros are something special, because future Phillies pinch-hitting ace (and “Good Times” enthusiast) Greg Gross is leading off.  In what is either a case of art imitating life or a screenwriter not doing enough research into the subject to be even marginally tactful, real-life Houston Astros centerfielder César Cedeño was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in 1974 after accidentally shooting and killing his girlfriend. The Swingin’ A’s by this time were not pure enough for their wedding gown whites, and Charlie O. Finley was in the midst of dumping anyone connected with his dynasty not named MC Hammer, including Rollie “MC 900 Ft. Jesus” Fingers. This is why Bert Campaneris is their team’s offensive juggernaut in this film.

The Houston Astrodome has had more than its share of good movies filmed or at least set there, from Friday Night Lights to Selena. Brewster McCloud, Robert Altman’s 1970 opus about Bud Cort living in the tunnels under the Astrodome and being weird, is one of the weirdest films of all-time; Bad News Bears In Breaking Training had both an excellent climax and the aforementioned Cedeño.  I have not (yet) seen the late-80’s Roy Scheider vehicle Night Game, although it sounds like a winner even by Roy Scheider Vehicle standards. So Murder At The World Series had some fairly stiff competition where Astrodome-related movies are concerned. Which is unfortunate.

Unfortunate because, as it is by now maybe needless to say, Murder At The World Series is nowhere near as good as these films. Unless you want to see the star of "Scarecrow And Mrs. King" rain down half-hearted vengeance upon his enemies, it’s roughly as watchable as the 2013 Houston Astros. But it’s as close to Black Sunday as the World Series has yet come, which is… something? It's something. The whole thing is something.

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Well, that wasn't the first time when producers didn't followed the original script, even if baseball players played in the movie, it wasn't a successful story. Off the screens, if a women were to get kidnapped these days, she could get off easily. With some help from the best clothes for concealed carry weapons, attackers stand no chance. Taking self-defense classes can really save lives.

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